By Richard S. Ginell
LOS ANGELES – Must someone stage Mahler’s symphony of songs, Das Lied von der Erde? Are we at the point in the digital information age where even the greatest music can no longer speak for itself? Or are there some artistic video wizards in our midst who can genuinely improve upon a sublime masterpiece?
Having posed these questions, I cannot say that the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s multimedia performance of Das Lied at Walt Disney Concert Hall onApril 5 answered them definitively. Yes, stage director and LA Phil artist-collaborator Yuval Sharon’s joint conception with Juan Carlos Zagal’s Chilean theatre troupe Teatrocinema was a dazzling treat to the eye that actually provided a few thoughtful perspectives into the work. At the same time, I don’t think it would have been as moving an experience had music and artistic director Gustavo Dudamel not also given us one of his most persuasive Mahler performances.
Fortunately, you could take it or leave it, since the Philharmonic gave its audiences a choice. The first three performances (April 5, 6, and 7) contained the staging while the fourth (April 8) offered just the music with no visual add-ons.
Sharon and Zagal started with the idea of placing their two solo singers – tenor Russell Thomas and mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford – between two scrims placed at the back of the orchestra. Once there, they were made to move within or even fly through an ever-changing barrage of phantasmagorical video images that were supposed to create a 3-D effect.
The images could be startling, bizarre, intergalactic, or occasionally humorous or sentimental, sometimes directly addressing Mahler’s texts from the book of poems The Chinese Flute and, often, the idea of music itself. In the violently leaping opening of “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde,” Thomas could be found staring at a huge glass of red wine or walking through a shower of electric-red rain that resembled flames.
In the pre-concert talk, Sharon drew a link between Das Lied and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde – which makes sense since Tristan started the disintegration of tonality that would continue in Mahler’s hands, and both long works end with transcendental orations for the female voice. So before long in “Das Trinklied,” Thomas steered a mystery ship right out of Tristan on the bow of which was the face of Mahler himself. After this tour-de-force of imagination, you couldn’t help but applaud – which the audience did spontaneously and thereafter for every song, sometimes spoiling the moods of the more introverted ones.
Sometimes you could predict what Sharon/Zagal would come up with – stars and airborne debris in “Der Einsame im Herbst” and a Chinese setting for the most strongly pentatonic-based song of the collection, “Von der Jugend.” “Von der Schönheit” received a commedia dell’arte theater setting that expanded poignantly upon the text; the young beauty in the last part of the song imagined that she had won the man she looked longingly at, only to find that it was just an illusion. “Der Trunkene im Frühling” was a wonderfully drunken stream-of-consciousness hallucination of a spinning room and nature scenes with a bird which, like a good Chilean feathered creature, said “Si!” instead of the text’s “Ja!”
Yet the one movement that resisted the Sharon/Zagal treatment was the lengthy, unearthly finale, “Der Abschied” – and who could blame them for falling short? They made the innards of a grand piano the visual motif for most of the song – Mumford seemingly trapped inside the prison bars of the piano strings. Throughout the orchestral funeral march interlude, she was confined within a giant eye. Mahler’s Tristan ship showed up again briefly. Finally, the piano gave way to clouds, then the open sea, then just a blue screen. A good try, but I doubt if anyone could have had anything to add to Mahler’s unbearably beautiful coda. How can you illustrate eternity?
For Dudamel, these concerts had an extra poignancy, for he somberly dedicated them to his late mentor and surrogate father figure, José Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema, who had died less than two weeks before, on March 24. Dudamel had worked his way through all of the completed Mahler symphonies and almost all of the song cycles during his first decade in Los Angeles, but he had not conducted Das Lied von der Erde until now. Atypically for him in Mahler, Dudamel used a score.
Perhaps the freshness of the challenge and the nature of the work, as well as the memory of Abreu, gave this performance a deeper charge of melancholy and emotion than I have ever heard in Dudamel’s Mahler. Tempos were well gauged, not too slow, never too fast, and the phrasing was flexible yet never pulled out of shape, even in the most passionate passages. The Philharmonic played with gorgeous transparency and impact; the deep bass response in the rock-bottom depths of the orchestral interlude in “Der Abschied” was staggering.
Thomas had no trouble hanging onto the notoriously treacherous tightrope line of “Das Trinklied.” Even situated behind the orchestra and the scrim, while being asked to act as he sang, he could be heard over the massive orchestral onslaught in front of him; the strain that seems to be practically built into the part just melted away. Mumford sounded winningly feminine in “Der Einsame,” and aside from a few forced high notes, she generated long, lovely, often emotion-charged lines in “Der Abschied.” It’s possible that one reason why Dudamel had not done Das Lied in L.A. until now was the difficulty in finding the voices capable of negotiating these parts, here and everywhere. But he had them on this occasion.
It’s possible that the questions at the beginning of this review will get different answers from different generations, with those in favor of video accompaniment to their classical concerts probably skewing younger. I suspect that the Phil’s strenuous efforts in recent seasons to include more and more multimedia concerts are as much a marketing tool intended to lure younger audiences as an honest attempt to push back the boundaries of artistic exploration.
What I can offer in response is my own introduction to Das Lied von der Erde. While prowling through a Salvation Army depot in Santa Monica when I was 17, I found a complete seven-disc 78 RPM set of Bruno Walter conducting the first recording of Das Lied, live in Vienna, in 1936. The music captivated me immediately – low-fi sound, grinding shellac surfaces, and all. That’s all it took. I’ve loved it dearly ever since. (To listen to those Walter recordings, go here.)
Overall, I liked this musically attuned production by the LA Phil very much. I’m glad Yuval Sharon and Teatrocinema brought it to us after 13 months of work. Go see it if it is ever repeated. But in the final analysis, it wasn’t necessary as a key to getting the full impact of this music. Gustavo Dudamel, Tamara Mumford, Russell Thomas, and the LA Phil were the crucial elements. And Gustav Mahler, of course.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.